SpaceX's Starlink satellites

SpaceX’s Starlink satellites: Strange lights in the Texas sky spark hysteria over possible UFOs

Upset scientists explained they were SpaceX’s Starlink satellites

PHILADELPHIA – A series of lights streaking through the night sky over parts of the United States on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, made some people wonder if a flotilla of UFOs was coming, but others – mostly amateur and professional astronomers – lamented the industrialization of space.

The string of lights was actually a series of relatively low-flying satellites launched this week by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, as part of its Starlink internet service. From Texas to Wisconsin, the population saturated the telephone lines of the television stations to report the lights and brood on UFOs.

An email sent to a SpaceX spokesperson was not returned on Saturday, but astronomy experts say the number of lights in rapid succession and their distance from Earth allowed the Starlink satellites to be easily identifiable by those used to seeing them.

“The way you can tell that they are Starlink satellites is that they are like a string of pearls, lights traveling in the same basic orbit, one after the other,” said Dr. Ricchard Fienberg, press director for the American Astronomical Society.

Fienberg added that satellites that are launched in large groups called constellations align when in orbit, especially right after launch. The chain gets smaller as time goes by.

This month, SpaceX has launched dozens of satellites. It’s all part of a plan to bridge the digital divide and give unprotected parts of the world access to the internet, for which SpaceX is scheduled to tentatively launch another 120 satellites this month. Overall, the company has sent approximately 1,500 satellites into orbit and has asked permission to launch thousands more.

But a few years ago, there were perhaps a few hundred satellites in total orbiting Earth, most visible as individual lights streaking across the sky, Fienberg explained. The other handful of companies that plan, or have launched, satellite constellations have not done so recently and have largely put them further away from Earth, he added.

Fienberg’s group, as well as others representing both amateur and professional astronomers, do not love the proliferation of satellites that can obscure scientific data and ruin a clear night of staring at the universe. The International Astronomical Union issued a statement in July 2019 expressing concern about the multiple satellite launches.

“The organization, in general, accepts the principle of a dark sky and without radio transmissions not only as essential to advance in the understanding of the Universe of which we are part, but also as a source for all humanity and for the protection of the nocturnal wildlife, ”wrote the group representative. He noted that the reflection of light can interfere with astronomical research, but that radio waves can also cause problems in specialized research equipment such as the one that captured the first images of a black hole.

Bruce Dorminey
I'm a science journalist and host of Cosmic Controversy (brucedorminey.podbean.com) as well as author of "Distant Wanderers: the Search for Planets Beyond the Solar System."  I primarily cover aerospace and astronomy. I’m a former Hong Kong bureau chief for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine and former Paris-based technology correspondent for the Financial Times newspaper who has reported from six continents. A 1998 winner in the Royal Aeronautical Society's Aerospace Journalist of the Year Awards (AJOYA), I’ve interviewed Nobel Prize winners and written about everything from potato blight to dark energy. Previously, I was a film and arts correspondent in New York and Europe, primarily for newspaper outlets like the International Herald Tribune, the Boston Globe and Canada's Globe & Mail. Recently, I've contributed to Scientific American.com, Nature News, Physics World, and Yale Environment 360.com. I'm a current contributor to Astronomy and Sky & Telescope and a correspondent for Renewable Energy World. Twitter @bdorminey